Although the international alliance has so far dropped nearly 5,000 bombs in air raids on the Islamic State (IS) as the Pentagon reported Jan. 7, IS is still moving around and consolidating its presence in new areas.
In Yemen, IS was able to impose its presence on al-Qaeda and acquire a hierarchical structure and leaders who move around both secretly and publicly. Elsewhere, IS is reportedly about to take new action in Algeria, while in Syria IS has returned to Hama in strength and announced the renewal of its wilaya (province) there.
After Libya — where IS has succeeded in expanding its operations by holding Derna, considered the center of Barqa province where IS announced the country’s first wilaya — information indicates that IS is eyeing Algeria. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has announced that Algeria is among the countries that pledged allegiance to him. He called those countries the wilayas in his latest audio recording titled "wa law kariha al-karifoun" ["even if the unbelievers hate it"], issued last November.
According to a source close to IS, the next phase will see an intense interest by IS toward the "Algerian wilaya," followed by practical steps aimed at strengthening IS' presence there. This is especially in light of the operation by the Algerian army against those who had pledged allegiance to IS.
According to the Algerian Ministry of Defense, this operation has resulted in the killing of Jund al-Khilafah’s commander, Abdel Malek Quri, known as Khaled Abu Suleiman. He had split from al-Qaeda last September and sworn allegiance to Baghdadi. The Algerian army has been waging a military campaign against extremists in the southeast of the country for nearly four months after the kidnapping and killing of French tourist Hervé Gourdel by Jund al-Khilafa.
The source’s information about IS eyeing Algeria came after IS had consecrated its foothold in Yemen by completing its structural formation, which included the appointment of military and jurisprudence leadership, and assigning them their powers.
According available information, IS now enjoys a clear presence in Yemeni cities. IS is announcing its presence, seeking to attract supporters and loyalists and setting up headquarters. This is made possible by taking advantage of two factors: the chaotic situation in the country due to the fighting and IS’ confidence that al-Qaeda’s leadership in the country doesn’t intend to clash with IS. This gives IS plenty of room to move and announce its presence.
It seems surprising that IS’ expansion in Yemen would worry Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership (al-Qaeda’s branch in al-Sham) more than it does al-Qaeda in Yemen. Many in Jabhat al-Nusra are calling for crushing the seeds of the Kharijites and eliminating them before they get to Yemen.
Those Jabhat al-Nusra leaders fear the roles that could be played by some [IS] leaders in al-Sham and thus influence the events Yemen, allowing IS to attract more loyal forces to the fight in Syria. Among those Jabhat al-Nusra leaders is the head of al-Khadra Battalion, Omar Seif, who recently swore allegiance to IS. Some think he has a great ability to attract new recruits.
Jabhat al-Nusra also fears the peaceful approach pursued by al-Qaeda in Yemen toward IS expansion and its naive belief that dialogue could persuade IS loyalists to reverse their pledge of allegiance.
In this context, Al-Safir examined a jurisprudence debate that took place between IS’ new jurisprudence official in Yemen, Abu Hayyan, and an al-Qaeda jurisprudence official, Atiyya Allah al-Hadrami. Regardless of the debate’s content, the mere fact that it took place indicates that al-Qaeda has accepted that IS is present in Yemen.
These developments in both Yemen and Algeria are happening at a time when IS is trying to expand within Syria at the expense of other factions, especially Jabhat al-Nusra. This explains the recent concerns regarding IS expansion.
Other developments that could cause Jabhat al-Nusra to worry about one of the most important strongholds is IS’ declaration of the establishment of what it called "wilayat Hama" [in Syria] just months after canceling this wilaya due to the outbreak of fighting against IS, which forced its withdrawal from some provinces, such as the countryside of Latakia, Idlib and Hama.
According to an observer, the declaration of "wilayat Hama" came after IS strengthened its presence in some villages in the Hama countryside, which has been witnessing confrontations between IS and the Syrian army, as well as between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
It is not unlikely that Jabhat al-Nusra’s attack on the strongholds of the "Islamic Punishment Brigade" in Ben Ouerdane Palace in Hama two weeks ago (after it was accused of pledging allegiance to IS) was an attempt to thwart that brigade’s plan to declare a new wilaya.
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